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6,377: Or 8,000? Or 10,000? Or 12,000? Who Knows

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The 2007 Homeless Count Report (884 Kb PDF), released March 28, shows a 2% increase in San Francisco’s homeless population since the most recent such count in 2005. The proportion of homeless youth has almost doubled, while more than half again as many members of homeless families are living on the streets. Even more striking are the portions of the homeless population not counted.

Perhaps most notably, a documented 1,560 members of families living crowded together in single-room occupancy hotel rooms were omitted from the count, despite being considered homeless by a City law co-sponsored by then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom.

While the count of homeless people staying in shelters was down by 257, the city has lost 326 beds since 2005, indicating that while resources have disappeared, demand for shelter has actually increased.

In order to test the accuracy of the count of San Francisco’s vehicularly housed, the 2007 Count employed “tester cars.” Only 43% of these vehicles were counted. If this accuracy test is representative, then 57% of San Franciscans living in their cars or vans were not counted. If this level of inaccuracy applies to the count as a whole, then the given total may be a wild undercount.

Half of the city’s twelve hospitals failed to report the number of homeless patients. The six that did respond reported 122 homeless people. Another temporarily sheltered segment of the homeless population that may have been undercounted was that in the County Jail: A document released by the Sheriff’s Department the month of the Count reported that 30% of the Jail’s inmates were homeless, the 2007 Count estimates only 20% of these same inmates as homeless, representing a difference of approximately 200 individuals.

Strangely, the Newsom administration has reported the Count as evidence of success. Says Juan Prada of the Coalition on Homelessness, “This administration is again spinning facts to try to take advantage of homelessness in an electoral year. It’s a terribly cynical take on politics to claim an increased homeless count as ‘progress.’ This is not a victory: Even had the numbers decreased, rather than increased, the fact would remain that thousands of people continue to be homeless on San Francisco’s streets. We need to place our focus on providing adequate, safe, affordable housing.”

What If…

Unfortunately, we don’t know how many people are missing from the 2007 Homeless Count. But a couple of thought experiments might give some idea of the magnitude to which the current count could be off:

  • WHAT IF: All hospitals reported? In the 2007 Count, only six of twelve responded. As these six reported 122 single adults, it’s possible that a full representation would have included another 122 people. Or more. Or none.
  • WHAT IF: The estimate of homeless people in County Jail were based on the 30% of all inmates estimate provided by the Sheriff’s Department in January, rather than on an arbitrary 20%? Then the Count would have included 200 more homeless people.
  • WHAT IF: The undercount of tester cars was representative of the undercount of all cars (a possibility that the use of these cars were intended to check)? Then the Count would have included 713 more homeless people.
  • WHAT IF: That tester car failure applied to the street count as a whole? Using the City’s 6,377 number, we’d actually have a few more than 10,000 homeless people in San Francisco. Combined with possible hospital and jail undercounts, that number approaches 10,400.
  • WHAT IF: The Count took the City’s definition of homelessness seriously? We’d then have 1,560 more individuals who are members of families crowded together in single room occupancy hotel rooms.

The above is not a somehow more accurate estimate of San Francisco’s homeless population: It’s simply speculation to balance the speculation in the Homeless Count. The point is, we simply still don’t know the full extent of homelessness in San Francisco. As long as we’re in the dark, we can’t claim any victories.

What we do know is that we still have thousands of homeless people in San Francisco, that the true number shows no real signs of decline, that there are signs the true number may have increased, and that these thousands of people are experiencing a nationwide phenomenon that San Francisco will not be able to solve alone.

We know that it’s inane to consider Greyhounding 1,800 homeless people out of San Francisco a solution to homelessness. We know that you can’t punish people out of poverty, as the Mayor’s proposed community courts would attempt to do.

We know that to solve homelessness we need a serious commitment from all levels of government to a sincere housing agenda.


Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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